tv [untitled] April 28, 2012 11:00pm-11:30pm EDT
war navy conference in newport news, virginia. this year's conference in early march marked the 150th anniversary of the battle of hampton roads, where for the first time ironclad warships met in battle. in this session author and professor david mindell talks about the technology of the "uss monitor" and the experience of its crew aboard one of the first ironclads. this is about 50 minutes. >> well, i've got to say i was so excited when our next speaker contacted me and wanted to be part of what we're doing today. and david mindell has been a friend of the "uss monitor" for quite some time. and i'm so pleased that his book has been reissued with a brand new name, right up here. we have it in the gift shop. i've got to admit, i was an english literature nerd. and so the fact that he used so
much melville and hawthorne in his book just made me so happy. well, david mindell is a historian and electrical engineer. and he is the dibner professor of the history of engineering and manufacturing and. we're not sure when he sleeps either. he is also director of mit's program on technology and science and interdisciplinary department. he is an expert on human machine relationships in broad technical, social, and historical context. now, for years he's been combining engineering a ining a historical research into the evolution of humans' relationships to machines. his book "digital apollo, human and machine and space flight" examined the computers, automation, and software in the apollo moon landings, their effects on human performance. his first book, "war technology and experience aboard the uss monitor," now reissued at "iron coffin," explored personal
issues and dimensions of mechanization in the u.s. civil war and was awarded the sally hacker prize by the society of history and technology. you before come m.i.t. he worked as a research engineer in the woods hole oceanographic institution where he is now a visiting investigator. maybe we'll find out what he's investigating. he's conducted all kinds of research there and worked on, operated on autonomous underwater vehicles for exploring the deepest parts of the ocean and even developed the control system and pilot interface for the woods hull jason vehicle. so the man has done a little bit of everything. "monitor," "apollo," bronze-age shipwrecks. he does it all. today he is going to be telling us about our favorite ironclad. and i just noticed he has a degree in literature. i knew i liked him. and in electrical engineering from yale university, his doctorate in the history of technology from m.i.t.
so without further ado, david mindell. [ applause ] >> thank you. when anna invited me on the program, you know, i asked her if i should give a talk. and she said, well, how about an interpretive dance. so i'll now start my interpretive dance. no. just kidding. actually, funny that she mentioned all the various things i've been involved in over the years. they actually are all connected. and i'll try to show you some of that in the talk. the title of the talk officially is the title of the reissued book, as anna mentioned. you might call the unofficial title "confessions of a monitor nerd," because i want to to talk a little bit about -- the book was originally published in the year 2000. and i want to talk a little bit about what that history looked like when i first started working on it, and then what's happened in the last ten years, which is what the new parts of
the book are just a little bit about, and a lot of what has happened with the "monitor" in the last ten years has been right here by people in this room. so i started working on this project in 1992. and it was not by coincidence, and i'll come back to this right after the end of the first gulf war. and there was a lot of talk about push-button warfare and robotic warfare and remote controlled warfare. and i was taking a class with pauline mayer and merit ross smith, who's here in the audience, who came down with me yesterday, who was my thesis adviser and also one of the two people to whom the book is originally dedicated to. on early american industrial technology. and started looking at the "monitor" story. and at that time, 20 years ago now, it seemed like a story that everybody knew everything about. first fight between ironclads, "monitor" and "merrimac," "monitor" and "virginia," however you want to talk about it, best-known story in naval
history, most famous battle, john erickson, the hero, you've have heard it all. and i began looking a little bit at the documents saying what's interesting here about technology? and this is a typical representation of the battle, actually a very good one. another more traditional one is the one on the u.s. postal service stamp from 1995. and the battle is almost always described as the fight between ironclads. it is a battle between machines. and many of these famous presentations are notable for the complete lack of people. very much a mechanical warfare. this is, again, this is actually from erickson's contributions to the centennial exhibition, but one of the sort of iconic drawings of the ship. very geometric, very clean, very
lacking in human dimensions as it is john ericsson's imagination. and that was how the story had come down. and i got interested in other parts of the story. i got interested in other parts of the story. and, you know, in a funny way, thinking about it in the last couple of weeks, the last really major scholarly statement on the "monitor" i think had been 1933 when james finney baxter wrote his classic "the introduction of the ironclad warship." which still remains a great book to read. maybe bernard brody in 1941. actually forgetting. "power in the age of steam," i think. and there had been interesting forays through the '70s. jim delgado who is around today had written some nice stuff. bill still had written a couple of pieces on the captains and the builders of the "monitor." a lot of teasers, but very
little kind of re-evaluation of what was this ship, what did it mean in the history of technology, in the field of the history of technology, which i'm notionally in, there had been almost nothing. and that was a field that kind of had merged in the end of -- after world war ii and the cold war to think about technology and culture. and it seemed like there was time for a re-evaluation. so i dived into the library and looked around and sort of took this dusty old topic all by myself and began to look at what might be said that was new. now, this photograph, which i'm sure is familiar to all of you and is the cover of the book, tells a lot about what might be new. all of the existing literature on the "monitor" would show you the officers of the "monitor." okay. there they are, as an illustration. interestingly, i did a survey.
and of the literature on the "monitor" that existed at that time in 1992, there was never more than a sentence or two, maybe i think in one book there was a paragraph about the "monitor's" summer up the james river in 1862. there is the battle, maybe a little bit about the refit in september in washington, and then the sinking in the end of december. 90% of the "monitor's" operational life simply did not exist in literature. so i began looking at gee, what's going on there. this picture is taken in july of 1862 in the middle of that summer. and i'll quote gustalphus fox. the assistant secretary of the navy, gust vus fox came on board the "monitor," he was the first person to come on after the battle of hampton roads. he said, "well, gentlemen, you don't look as though you've just come through the greatest naval battle on record." you might say the same thing about this photograph. these men are not looking all that happy. they're not looking all that
sheveled, if that's a word. they are hastily contriving. they are sitting on the covers of the skylights to create a dignified picture. they've thrown their uniforms on, as you can see they're all sort of in different states of array because of the photographer coming on board that day. they are on watch, in hostile territory. you can see the binoculars in the binocular case here. some of the other shots actually have an enlisted man standing on the turret, keeping watch. they have carefully arranged the photograph, as all these photographs from this period were, to show the dents in the armor made by the merrimac. they're very, very proud of that. it's not a coincidence that it's right there. and they're hot and actually keeler here is sunburned. they have been exposed to the sun, literally baking inside the bowels of the iron monster, as they said up, on the james river, supporting mcclellan's at this time failing peninsula campaign. and it's been a very rough time.
two of these gentlemen have particular reason to look ornery because they have less than six months to live. they died in the sinking. george frederickson and i'm actually forgetting the name of this gentleman, but i'm sure somebody here will remember. and samuel dana greene, the first lieutenant, is looking particularly unhappy. and the full weight of the ambiguity of the outcome of the encounter with the merrimac was then falling on greene's shoulders. and it would plague him for at least -- well, not at least. exactly another 20 years or so. and so this picture, i have it up in sort of -- it blows up very well. i blew it up from the national archive. it's in my office at m.i.t. and captures a lot of the clues that there is maybe a lot more going on here than the traditional heroic story. then you have captain jeffers sitting by himself next to an empty chair. he was of course not the captain who was in the famous battle,
but was assigned -- actually there were a couple of captains between him and when he took over. but he was the captain for the summer, most of the summer of 1862. interestingly, in may of 1862, he wrote an extremely good and very honest account of the strengths and weaknesses of "the monitor" for gideon wells, the commander of the secretary. he really nailed it on the head in a whole bunch of different ways. another part of that story, the famous story is ericsson the great inventor thrust this invention, radical invention on the navy, and the old fogies, that's a phrase you see all the time in ericsson's writing and all throughout, the old fogies in the navy didn't want ironclad technology. but you actually look at the debates that were going on on paper. the old fogies were mostly ericsson's friends. they were the older gentlemen. they were the senior ranks in the navy. they actually liked ericsson. the people who tended to oppose him were people like this, jeffers, young officers, highly trained in engineering, very familiar with steam engineering.
they called them the steam generation of officers. in fact, jeffers was a protege of the great ordnance pioneer dahlgren who designed the "monitor's" guns, became the first head of the technical organizations in the navy. and this generational conflict was not the radical lone inventor versus the old fogies in the navy. there was a lot more going on there about the technology. similarly, and we saw a few of these already today, this is the illustration from harper's which is pretty famous about life inside the "monitor." it looks a whole lot more spacious and comfortable. it looks like you might as well have a gymnasium in here and a beautiful galley here and the lovely ward room, which actually was pretty lovely. that's the one part of it that may be accurate, although not quite that big. and everybody enjoying a grand time below decks. looking again at the cross-section, all these
questions become very interesting when you start to open up and look inside this tin can and say what's going on in there. well, one thing was the life below decks, very simplified geometric representation here, was pretty intense and pretty difficult at times and turned out to be a major bottleneck in the combat effectiveness of not just this monitor, but all of them. same thing in the turret in different ways, the ability to fire coherently at the enemy, accuracy, all of the things about what you could see. we heard a little bit about that just now. out of the turret and out of the pilot house. a more complicated story. i was really drawn -- and i mentioned my literary background. and i was drawn to keeler's letters because he was a sort of literary type guy. and this was one of his first reactions on seeing the "monitor" in his famous set of letters to his wife. "we thought we were in no danger from shot or shell, but thought the trip in her was maybe not quite too safe.
i wonder if there isn't danger enough to give us glory." one of the first things he thinks about when he sees this ship. and that comes up again and again and again among the "monitor" crew. after the great battle they are hailed as the great heros of the union. they saved the union, all these things that you have seen. you can see them in the great exhibits in this museum. but they would ask themselves, gee, we fought the enemy behind eight inches of armor plate. what's so heroic about that? and look at all those poor guys who are running across the battlefields and straight into the grape shot and straight into the musket fire. what did we do that was really so heroic? well, one thing they found that they did was they survived riding around on the "monitor." this is a view of actually the terror in 1898. it was one of the much, much later monitors. as the only view -- only photograph that i know of of a monitor actually at sea. and you can see the decks are completely awash. and this was actually as it was
designed to be. they would wash over the deck. but it was a very strange, unusual, sometimes very comforting experience for the crew, sometimes extremely discomforting experience for the crew. keeler said you'd look up and you'd imagine the total weight of that water being sufficient to bury us forever. presciently of course, because that's what it did eventually. if you go into the museum display and look at the beautiful reproduction they've done of the officers' ward room, there was a skylight that would be on the deck up above. and keeler would describe lying in his bed looking up at the skylight. and the water would roll in and then roll out. and there would be fish swimming around in the skylight. it reminds you of something from jules verne's "20,000 leagues under the sea." which was indeed written only five years after the "monitor" was built and indeed mentions
the "monitor" on its first page. so very much a model for what later becomes a modern vision of a submarine home. again, the turret is of course the iconic picture of what "the monitor" was all about. there are many other interesting novel design features worthy of note and worthy of study. but the turret, as you see again on the refrigerator that anna got in that wonderful new exhibit on pop culture "monitor" really was the thing that said "monitor" to people. here again, one of the famous pictures very carefully lined up so that the dents from the "virginia's" shells are very clearly shown to the photographer. you can see the pilot house there in the background and the two guns pointing out. samuel dana greene, who commanded the gun crew, had this to say about being in the turret. "the effect of one shut up in a revolving drum is perplexing and it's not a simple matter to keep the bearings. during the battle i would continually ask the captain how does the merrimac bear? and on the starboard beam he could say or on the port quarter as the case may be. then the difficulty was to determine the direction of the
starboard beam or the port quarter and any other bearing." he had no idea which direction he was pointing during the battle. now, this comment by greene is often taken as a sort of authoritative account. in this little article he wrote in the monitor turret. but we want to think about that article in historical context as well. it was written for century magazine, which assembled a whole series of personal accounts that was later published in a series of volumes. they're very popular still called battles and leaders of the civil war. it was republished in 1956 in anticipation of the centennial. greene wrote this account. it was the first time he wrote his account of what happened during the battle of hampton roads. he described the confusion on board the ship, described the reasons that he broke off the battle when warden was wounded, went out to his mailbox, put it in the mail, went back to his house and shot himself in the head.
20 years after the battle. so that's why i said precisely 21 years or so it burdened him. in correspondence leading up to the publication of these articles, ericsson, who never admitted that the battle with the "monitor" -- with the "virginia" was anything but a complete and total victory finally admitted that maybe "the monitor" had failed in its mission and placed the blame entirely on samuel dana greene, who by the way he also blamed for the sinking. and so the ambiguity of the outcome of the battle and the various issues and questions around the crew's roles were deeply, deeply held for people for as much as 20 years. in fact, the modern history of the "monitor" as we know it really emerged in the 1880s, much more than in the 1860s. most people didn't really want to talk about the civil war. it's well known among historians, as is true for most wars, there is a kind of period of silence after the war, and it takes a couple of decades for
people really to really discuss the more difficult issues. and the "monitor" that we know of very much stemming from the set of articles published in "century" magazine in 1883 is a product of the 1880s. interestingly, after he did that, and after his suicide, there is a whole spate of correspondence from all members of the "monitor" crew to a collector named frank pierce in new york who collected correspondence and documents about the "monitor," awful them debating whether his suicide was actually related to the issues around the "monitor" or not. many of the enlisted men on the ship in 1883 called him a coward. they said "after the battle was over, we stood on the deck cursing him as a coward because he didn't pursue the merrimac." the officers, including keeler, who was a close friend of his, tended to defend him more. and the questions were opened and never really satisfi satisf closed for people. a similar set of issues around the enlisted crew. again, this photograph, which
you're familiar with, very, very carefully staged to show the dents in the armor. almost comically so. they're sort of casually playing on deck and sitting there, but there's this hole through the crowd that goes right there. you can see, again, they're on the james river. they're in hostile territory. there is a lookout up here on top of the turret. most of the men look pretty hot and sunburnt also, if not blackened with coal. during that summer on the james river the confederate sharpshooters learned pretty easily that all they had to do is take a few potshots at them enough to make everybody go inside and then they would basically cook the crew all summer. the ship's logs record the temperature in the galley as getting up to 150 degrees fahrenheit during the summer. that's when the blowers were broken. when the blowers were working, it was a more comfortable 132 degrees. herman melville responded to this. he wrote a series of poems on
the civil war. four of them were about the ironclads. this one, which some critics think is actually among the finest poems of the civil war, has this response. "beheld you in the turret. walled by adamant. where a spirit forewarning and all deriding called. man, darest thou desperate unappalled be first to lock thee in an iron tower." and he ends it with "monstrous error." wondering again what the challenges are of fighting from within this very, very unusual and very modern environment. these are some of the issues that i brought up in the book the first time around. there's a lot more interesting to say about them which i'm happy to talk about in the question and answer if people like. having in the last few weeks,
partly to prepare this talk and partly just because the anniversary was coming on, back to read some of the documents, they are remarkable documents about the "monitor" and how much everyone is constantly defending themselves and laying charges at everybody else. and the secretary of the navy asked john ericsson if he will come down to fort monroe and look at the "monitor" and talk to the crew. he says i just ordered six more of these from you, i think you should come down and talk to the crew and talk to the engineers and see what needs to improve. and ericsson responds, oh, they know how to operate the machinery very well, they're competent men, they don't need any help from me. and he refuses to come down and learns relatively few of the lessons that were needed to be learned for the following six monitors. but now i want to talk a little bit about up until really about 1999, 2000, when the book was published, i knew this ship through these documents. very rich documents. and i pretty much think that i read every document relative to the "monitor" that was accessible at that period. and then began this period where i and all of us in a way began to encounter this ship in other
ways and simply added to the experience of what was going on. one of those was a really kind of distinct and remarkable pleasure that i had which was filming a documentary with the bbc in 2005 about the ship and about not so much about the wreck, mostly about the ship. and we did some research and actually managed to find keeler's great, great grandson mr. mark ewing from albuquerque, new mexico, and brought him to the naval academy museum in annapolis and walked him through his great, great grandfather's letters. he had known that he had an ancestor on the "monitor" but did not know much about him. and it was really interesting. you could almost look in his eyes and see that he had that same look, kind of intense focus -- i may be missing a great, but great, great grandfather had.
interestingly, keeler's son, in the last year or so, i've just been doing some amateur reading about astronomy, and keeler's son james was one of the great astronomers who laid the foundation for edwin hubble's discovery of the expanding universe. and was working right up to the 1920s. we also went to a bunch of the various sites around. these are some actors that we hired. and then the bbc put a computer graphic version of the monitor in here at harrison's landing, which is the place among other things it was known as the birthplace of president william henry harrison, but also where mcclellan basically evacuated the peninsula campaign to and then from and the "monitor" stood offshore and supported it. and this was one of the real poignant moments that summer where keeler wrote a letter to his wife where he said come up on top of the turret with me and look around and i'll tell you what i see, which is -- you know, for a historian to have somebody tell you that who actually knows how to write is
remarkable. and he described the incredible sense of injury and dejection in the rain that these poor injured soldiers who were just coming from the battle of malvern hill and other battles had right on this spot where i was standing when i took this photograph, evacuated from harrison's landing. very interesting, too, that the man who now owns that -- the house there on harrison's landing, his -- he inherited it. his grandfather had owned this house, and he said my grandfather was in the civil war. i said, well, that's unusual, you don't meet too many people these days whose grandfather was in the civil war. he said, yeah, my grandfather was a drummer boy with mcclellan's army on the peninsula campaign and was evacuated here out of harrison's landing and then he survived the war and went on to new york city and made a fortune in the tugboat business in the late 19th century and when he retired and had something to do with his
fortune he came back and he bought the estate at harrison's landing and it's still owned by that family. other interesting ways to experience the "monitor" which i never thought i would do was to actually get to work on the ship. i had been doing a lot of work with robotic archaeology in very deep water, mostly around ancient shipwrecks in the mediterranean and in the black sea, and in the course of that work i met and became good friends with john broadwater, who was then heading the archaeological efforts. and an instrument that i designed for the other work had to do with can you detect the parts of a shipwreck that are buried in the mud with a robot. and we tried it out on a phoenician wreck off the coast of israel, and one thing led to another and john said, well, why don't you bring it out on the "monitor." and i was not going to turn down a chance to go out and do some work on the "monitor." and so we adapted it and connected it to a cable. and i'm a very, very novice, amateur diver. so i did not dive on the wreck of the "monitor." this is tana casserly who used
to be with the marine sanctuary, holding the sensor head in the turret, trying to see if we could detect with this basically an ultrasonic device, almost like prenatal ultrasound, whether the guns were still inside that turret because it was critical for the planning of the eventual recovery of the turret. and i sat with my student brian bingham. and this is jeff johnston, who's still here at the museum. looking at the data. and we would go out at 6:00 a.m. from hatteras. and all day we would come back at 6:00, 7:00 p.m. in the evening after a 12-hour day on the water for 20 minutes on the site given all the other logistics and decompression that we had to do. but we did get some good data. and it was an experimental device. so i wasn't -- we weren't confident to tell anybody they should plan around this, but there were sonar indications that suggested there were a lot of big heavy metal objects buried in the sediment in the turret.
one place i never thought i would be then would be inside the "monitor's" turret, where i came and jeff johnston invited me in there. and again, for someone who had dealt with this ship as essentially a traditional historical topic, which means documents to most historians, to be standing there on top of those big heavy rails and seeing the dents in the armor, and i don't know if you can see, it's a little bit of a blurry picture, but i certainly felt like a kid in a candy store at that point. and to just get a sense of the sheer scale of the turret, which is very hard to do from the numbers and even from the photographs, which now the museum is really good at giving you that sense. and also just how heavy and mechanical and sort of imposing that environment was and how really it's quite an intimidating kind of site. and this was without the guns in there. and to imagine actually the guns in there was -- you could understand why people like
keeler reacted the way that they did. one of the things that struck me most, though, in the past ten years about the monitor was the work that they've done here in the museum with children. and in what is now the monitor and pop culture gallery, a few years ago was basically full of children's art about the "monitor" versus the "merrimack" battle. and it was just amazing to see how this ship which still speaks to me after i wrote a book about with about it ten years ago and clearly speaks to all the people here in this room still in different ways speaks to children who are learning about it. and you found in these images everything from -- some kids just drew sailing boats, didn't want to deal with it at all. other kids drew, you know, fiery representations of the battle. one was sort of like jackson pollock, just scribbly mess, but